Still Hiding

The Sun-Times has circled its wagons. No, that isn’t the right metaphor. The Sun-Times has stuffed its head under a pillow. The men who run the newspaper are concealing less than they hope they are. It is evident to everyone in the building, and many beyond it, that upper management is struggling to determine who’s in charge.

At the moment, we’re told, the Sun-Times is being run by an executive committee that is convened each Monday by Leonard Shaykin, who’s chairman of the board of Chicago Sun-Times, Inc. The publisher remains Robert Page, whose authority has been reduced. His principal adversary on the executive committee is Donald Piazza, the paper’s general manager and chief operating officer. For a long time Piazza has been unhappy with the job Page has been doing.

None of these men is talking. Even the date of the April board of directors meeting–which is likely to be dominated by the issue of command–is in their minds nobody’s business. Here are a couple of reasons for all the silence: (1) Everyone feels a little silly about trying to run a newspaper by committee. (2) Things are hard enough at the Sun-Times in the best of times, and no one wants to help write a story that would undermine the city’s confidence in its upper management.

Even reporters in the city room have had second thoughts about telling what they see and hear. The Chicago Newspaper Guild will soon open contract talks with the Sun-Times; these negotiations would be especially bleak if the paper were on the skids.

Two years ago this July, Page and Piazza were heroes. They were the Sun-Times leaders who were rescuing the paper from Rupert Murdoch, returning ownership of it to Chicago with the help of 145 million borrowed dollars.

The talents and personalities of Page and Piazza are so diametrically opposed that in those good times their partnership could have been mistaken for a perfect fit. Page is a man of large emotions, an executive guided by the seat of his pants, a dreamer presumptuous enough to imagine buying the Sun-Times from Rupert Murdoch even though, as he said at the time, “I haven’t got a nickel.” Page is a public man. Piazza, an intense, focused, private man, lacks Page’s recklessness and social appetites; on the other hand, he’s a shrewder judge of character. Page brought Piazza into the deal in 1986 because he understands numbers cold, and Page doesn’t.

But the good times didn’t last, and reporters began to talk about the Sun-Times as this nutty place where we work. Editors were fired right and left, columnists sent packing, lowly library and copy clerks laid off, while an interloper like Mike Sneed was retained at a queenly wage to do what she does. A loose cannon like Chuck Ashman made a sudden, flamboyant appearance, then vanished. One day Bob Page boasted that under him the Sun-Times made seven times what it did under Marshall Field; and another day there wasn’t a nickel to spare. What bothered us most about the workaday Sun-Times, as we gleaned it from reporters, was an attitude that first-rate work was something done while no one was looking. Quality did not drive the place.

Piazza soon became outspokenly unhappy with Page’s leadership. He and Page had some talks that obviously did not settle things, and Piazza considered resigning. Instead, he eventually went to Shaykin with his complaints and found the chairman disposed to listen.

Leonard Shaykin is a managing partner of Adler & Shaykin, a New York firm that specializes in leveraged buyouts and orchestrated the Sun-Times’s. This kind of deal saddles the new owners with a whopping debt to repay from the proceeds of the company; and we are told that although the Sun-Times’s first year under Page and Piazza went well, the second year hasn’t: the Sun-Times is not fully meeting its obligations to its lenders. The costs of newsprint and labor have risen, while circulation and advertising have tailed off.

So Shaykin, who controls most of the company’s equity, stepped in. When Joan Kane and Tom Cunningham abruptly resigned last month, it quickly became clear that someone new was making big decisions. As we said three weeks ago, Robert Page had no two more loyal aides in the building than Kane, his executive assistant, and Cunningham, senior vice president for corporate development.

But Kane had a reputation as a free spender, and Piazza was sure that Cunningham’s position was superfluous. Now they were gone. Maybe Page himself was OK, which is what he told people, but a couple of people close to his heart had disappeared over the side.

As long as he’s publisher, life will continue to provide Robert Page with many terrific moments, such as the five hours he spent sitting next to President Reagan at the Gridiron Dinner in Washington a couple of weeks ago. But if his job is reduced to its perquisites, we wouldn’t expect Page to stand it for long. He’s too proud and tough a man.

And if he goes it won’t be quietly. An exuberant civic booster and champion of good causes, Page has tirelessly woven his own identity into his newspaper’s. The message that his downfall would signal about the Sun-Times’s stability can’t be something Leonard Shaykin enjoys thinking about.

But think he must, and about much else besides. When will the Sun-Times match the Tribune’s 40 percent price hike-from a quarter an issue to 35 cents–as it surely will? What series of moves will cut costs, entice advertisers, and inspire the staff to win Pulitzer Prizes? To set the paper on the right course, some sort of strategic plan has been hammered out by the executive committee; we’re told that as middle managers are briefed on it, they actually are asked to promise in writing to keep the details confidential.

That sounds so nervous and foolish we’d like to think it can’t be true. But things have a way of happening at the Sun-Times that are very curious.

The Date That Came Too Late

We believe Paul Simon let slip through his fingers the issue that would have made him president. Today, April 15, millions of surly Americans would have been hard-pressed to even imagine voting for anyone else.

Alone among 1988 candidates for president of the United States, Senator Simon voted to defeat the Tax Reform Act of 1986. This is the boondoggle that was going to restore sanity and ease to the preparation of our annual returns. It has not.

We called David Axelrod, who was Simon’s media strategist. Why didn’t Simon milk this issue all the way to the White House? we asked. Axelrod said Simon hadn’t been able to.

“He did in fact make a pretty big deal about it in some of his appearances,” Axelrod said, “and we did do a commercial on taxes generally, in which he talked about voting against all the tax bills of the Reagan years.

“But the fact is, the tax season fell a little late for our purposes. During the Iowa caucus, most people had yet to plunge into the abyss of tax simplification.”

What a lovely word–“abyss”! How aptly it pertains to the sensation of chasing a Social Security number for your three-year-old, so that a dossier of his financial affairs can be maintained by a bureaucrat who will bring down the law if interest on the college fund his grandmother opened for the boy isn’t reported to the last penny.

No, most Americans are not amused. We called H & R. Block, and asked with a chuckle if the easy new IRS forms and procedures have driven that firm to the edge of bankruptcy. They told us that last time they looked, business nationwide was up 13.4 percent.

The headline to a Sun-Times article we tore out a few days ago announced “Tax reform a jolt to many.” An accountant with the house of Peat Marwick Main & Company was quoted as saying, “People feel conned.”

That sums it up.

There was one debate in Atlanta, Axelrod told us, when Simon did hold up the notorious ’88 forms. But by then it was too late. By Super Tuesday, when the south weighed in at the polls, Simon wasn’t even running TV ads and his voice was no longer heeded.

“He often joked about how the American people are already discovering there’s no simplification and they’ll soon find there’s no reform either,” Axelrod said. “But at the time we were doing media, it hadn’t sunk in yet how vexing and confounding if not downright unfair the tax simplification–I don’t think they even call it ‘simplification’ anymore–tax complication bill was.”

To tell the truth, the big reason Simon voted no in 1986 was that the bill lowered the tax ceiling for the rich to 28 percent of earnings. The bill’s partisans argued that this reduction was more than made up for by the elimination of various tax shelters, and we do have a lurking fear that the big reason Simon opposed the measure was that he didn’t understand it.

But on the other hand–who does?

“I think it would make a pretty good issue right around now,” said Axelrod, understating matters majestically. “Unfortunately, by now he’s irrelevant to the race.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.